Most of us would love to cook with freshly harvested herbs from our garden or serve a salad filled with home-grown, sun-ripened tomatoes. But while not everybody has the space to make a vegetable garden, almost all of us have a spot in which we can grow a container garden. It’s why Vanessa Jacobs was inspired to create Sow Delicious, which sells what she describes as "gardening goodies" suited to this type of vegetable gardening.
"At Sow Delicious we love to inspire and empower people to grow their own delicious food," she says. "Growing a vegetable patch is now as easy as snap, plant, grow! Our slabs are pot-friendly too so it does not matter if you live on a farm or in a flat; with the ‘Slab of Seed’ we make grow-your-own ‘sow’ simple."
In September, Jacobs was named Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year at the annual competition of that name sponsored by financial services group Sanlam and specialist risk finance company Business Partners. It’s something she admits might not have happened, had it not been for a series of serendipitous events.
"Our early days seemed almost supernatural in that people appeared at seemingly perfect moments and made their beautiful contribution to the idea that would become Sow Delicious," she says. "Some close friends, who own a Web development company, offered to create an e-commerce website for me as a gift. It was so excellently done that it is the same website I use to this day."
Jacobs launched an online niche gardening website in August 2013. Its focus was on specialised, imported gardening gadgets and tools. The Slab of Seed was just a side offering she decided to try that December but, to her surprise, it took off so spectacularly that it has become the full focus of Sow Delicious, with gardening gadgets and tools becoming the side offering.
"Our initial focus was to have an online store supplying directly to the public like [kitchenware store] Yuppiechef," she explains. "But within 10 months we had so much interest from stores wanting to sell the Slab of Seed from their shops that it has now become 98% of our business."
More pleasant surprises came in funding her business. As the website was being developed — and just as she needed to buy stock for the store — she received a R15,000 inheritance from her great-aunt. With additional support from her husband and parents, she was able to plough every cent she made from Sow Delicious back into the business, only drawing her first salary more than a year later.
"A great benefit I discovered from starting up the ‘cash only’ way is that you grow at the perfect pace — not too fast and not too slow — as you don’t squander vast amounts of borrowed money on things you think you need," she says.
Jacobs believes there is a fine line between receiving investment for a specific item that you are able to repay and borrowing money to pay for things that have no clear purpose. Still, she admits there is a place for investment at certain growth phases. It’s one of the reasons she was thrilled when, in November 2014, she received another unexpected boost.
"Paul Wilmans and Rian Swanepoel from [gardening company] Hadeco flew down for the day to ask me if they could become the Sow Delicious national distributor," she recalls. "The day before they booked their flights, I kept asking Paul if he knew that we were a little artisanal company working out of my garage in Wilderness in the Western Cape and that we were not a big factory. This fact did not seem to deter him in the slightest."
It was a day that changed the business forever. Jacobs and her mother ("our official chocolate-bean counter") sat at their dining room table listening to Wilmans and Swanepoel talk. She laughs at the memory: her mouth must have been hanging open, so flabbergasted was she that a large international company like Hadeco not only wanted the Slab of Seed as one of its product lines, but also wanted to help Sow Delicious with so much expertise, from box printing and courier logistics to client networks and more. The company placed such a large order it took her business more than two months to fill it.
"Because of this collaboration we were able to buy a house in George, convert it to a factory, and increase our production so much that we could produce in one day what used to take us one week," Jacobs says. "It was the rocket fuel that launched us into space (the SA space, at least) and I will always be grateful to them for believing in us when we were still in our infancy and helping us grow to where we are today."
In her journey, Jacobs has learnt that while one can achieve great things alone, the right team can make a business achieve the impossible. It’s why she’s also grateful to have team members who take full responsibility for their work, perform with excellence and, most important, are passionate about their roles.
"I sometimes stand in awe at how our little team delivers the kind of output and quality that we do," she says of her three full-time "mud chefs" and three full-time process and admin gurus. "I have found that it pays off to carefully select your team."
Jacobs has also learnt that she functions and contributes best when she’s free to be creative, solve problems and dream. The entrepreneurial environment, which she has been in for most of her career, has been perfect for harnessing all those qualities.
"Doing what you love and loving what you do is a self-powered dynamo," she says. "Because you love it, you want to do it and get better at it. Sow Delicious is the first thing I have ever done where I am more energised at the end of the day than in the morning when I start. That is the beauty of it."
Still, as much as Jacobs believes that entrepreneurs are never more alive than when they’re flying above the status quo, there are always fears to overcome. But she has learnt that because we’re all fearful of something, we might as well go ahead and "do it scared". She’s also changed her mind-set, from asking "what if it fails?" to "what if it succeeds?" Viewing her supposed failures as successes has helped her focus on what isn’t working and how to make it better. It’s a practice, she says, that’s made all the difference.
"We are hardwired for this and so we have more failures than most people," she says. "But it is who we are and not what we do, so we are almost compelled to get up — bruises and all — and do it all again. The dragons I had to slay, especially in the beginning, were figments of my imagination. It was because of all the encouragement of those around me, telling me I could do what I was convinced I could not, that I am where I am today."